The IEEE SpectrumFacebook page received an exuberant, almost breathless, urging last week for the online magazine to promote a company called Aken Technologies. The firm is developing a hydrophobic nanomaterial that is designed to keep textiles from getting wet or stained.
If there is one thing that is not novel in the developing world of nanomaterials, it is stain-resistant textiles. As far back as 1998, David Soane founded Nanotex as a company that produced stain-resistant textiles. In the ensuing 16 years, the company has exhibited resilience and success, despite increasing competition, most notably from Swiss-based Schoeller Technologies. We even covered, in the pages of this blog, how the Italian cycling apparel company, Castelli, sourced Schoeller’s Nano Sphere technology to develop water repellant cycling wear.
Textiles haven't been the lone application for hydrophobic nanomaterials. The materials have also proven themselves effective for our beloved smart phones. Soon after they were developed in the labs, hydrophobic nanocoatings for smart phones were already the rage at the Consumer Electronics Show back in 2012.
So, while there may be nothing new about hydrophobic nanomaterials, there was something novel about Aken Technologies beyond its claim to be the “first in the industry” to be “100% Safe, Non-Toxic, Green, & Eco-Friendly.” The novel bit—at least to me—was that it was relying on Kickstarter, the crowdfunding site, for its initial funding.
I soon found out, however, that Aken was not the first nanotechnology-related company to use Kickstarter for its funding mechanism, or even the first company trying to fund a hydrophobic nanomaterial for textiles. A project dubbed Silic used Kickstarter late last year to fund a hydrophobic nanomaterial. Silic initially aimed to raise US $20,000, but quickly overshot its goal, securing $112,254 in funding. At least now, Silic has a website, a milestone that Aken Technologies has yet to achieve.
The funding gap remains one of the biggest obstacles for bringing nanotechnologies developed in the lab to the market place. Whether Kickstarter can become a viable method for bridging that gap remains to be seen. However, it’s hard to see how funding a few small companies so that they can develop the commercial potential for a technology that has already been in commercial markets for nearly two decades recommends it as the solution.
There’s nothing to clearly indicate that Kickstarter is offering an avenue for the unscrupulous to relieve people of their money. Unfortunately, we apparently have seen with other “nanotech investment opportunities” the potential for abuse, which has led the UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) to warn investors to beware of scams involving graphene.
The skepticism of the Kickstarter investors is not encouraging, if the questions that are posted on Aken Technologies’ Kickstarter page are any indication. The “investors” don’t really seem to be formulating the right questions. (Their questions are reasonable but not relevant to Aken's prospects for success.) A typical question is something along the lines of: "Will this technology work?" Yes, it works; there’s been a long commercial history of hydrophobic materials being used effectively in textiles. Instead, what potential investors should be asking is how Aken's offering is better than—or how can it even compete with—long-established companies that do the same.
After the excitement of seeing water bouncing off a t-shirt wears off, an understanding of the startup's market position needs to be soaked up.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.